For years one of the best Sunday nights in New York could be had at the corner of 24th and 10th, at a restaurant called Trestle on Tenth. Trestle was owned by a chef named Ralf Kuettel, who was raised in Switzerland, and his menu reflected that, although not in a firm way: bits of Germany (potato pancakes), France (the meat patties known as crépinettes), and plenty of market-green inspiration also showed up. But on winter Sundays, Kuettel would downshift into fondue mode, serving up gently bubbling pots for around 25 bucks per person.
I don’t know that I’d categorize Trestle’s fondue as without peer — unlike pizza and burgers, it’s not a dish that has people debating particulars like fantasy baseball coaches. It was milder and creamier than my own recipe. But it was always a pleasure, served up with bread from Sullivan Street Bakery, and potatoes, and, importantly, cornichons and the sort of alpine charcuterie, like speck, that Kuettel always had on hand. Plus a endearing list of wines — Kuettel spent several years selling wine, and his wife is Juliette Pope, long the wine director at Gramercy Tavern — that went long on bracing whites: Swiss chasselas, yes, but plenty of others from alpine-adjacent spots like the Savoie, the Jura, and Italy’s Valle d’Aosta.
In a city with endless temptations to try and dazzle you on the plate, Trestle went the opposite direction: offering a way to pause, step in from the February chill, and linger for a couple of hours with friends over the most communal and unencumbered of meals.
That is fondue’s greater purpose. And it’s why I’ve been a lover of fondue, of all the myriad forms of melted cheese served around the Alps, for as long as I can remember, including dishes like tartiflette, the Savoyard creation that’s what scalloped potatoes long to be. In our house growing up we had not only a well-used fondue steel pot — I surely had learned to light a Sterno by the time I’d learned my multiplication tables — but also a commercial-grade raclette machine. I inherited the latter from my father, and used it faithfully for a couple more decades, until its sad end at a New Year’s party in the waning weeks before the pandemic. (Apparently, French raclette machines sold in America do not work on 220 volts.)
This is to say: As a family, we took molten cheese very seriously. Our raclette machine fit no less than a half-wheel, which in recent years meant a good $120 cheese investment for dinner, which in turn led to our longtime annual fondue-and-raclette holiday party, a tradition disrupted only by COVID. (Raclette, if you’re not sure, is both a type of cheese, as well as the means of serving it, melted and scraped atop potatoes, pickles, and those same smoked meats found at Trestle. “Raclette” also literally means squeegee, i.e., the device used to scrape the cheese. Much like “fondue” simply means “melted.” Nomenclature wins.)
In theory, a proper fondue should be a blend of multiple “Swiss” cheeses — Appenzeller, Emmental, Gruyère, and the like. But everyone has their preferences. Arguably one of the best options is Comté, which is French, not Swiss. And other variations have become canon, not least of which is fontina, which is indeed an alpine cheese, from Valle d’Aosta. Myself, I lean heavily on Gruyère or Comté, or both, because I love their assertiveness. But a great fondue is a composition of multiple cheeses, always with something milder for balance. Also, while others may flinch, in my book not only is white wine a mandatory ingredient, but so is the cherry brandy known as kirschwasser — which further amps the headiness. As you might surmise, fondue at our house is not for the timid.
What surmounts all these particulars, though, is fondue’s ritual — and it’s the ritual that makes it such a perfect restaurant experience. It is the very opposite of all we’ve been taught to revere as “elevated,” to use an infernal term, about dining. Not just the communal mode of sharing, but the dish’s tactile nature: squeezing bits of bread onto the long fork tines, and entering the ring; playing traffic cop near an open flame, as any form of hotpot requires; making your food the literal centerpiece, while never allowing it to become an object of fetish. Other forms of dining may be entertainment — think Benihana — but here, you and your tablemates are each other’s entertainment. Fondue comes with an inevitable intimacy to the process. I suppose you could manage an awkward, conversation-less fondue dinner. But I’ve never witnessed one.
This conviviality, I think, lies at the heart of fondue being the very precise sort of dining pleasure we’ve missed this past year. Same with raclette, although that requires more equipment, and while I love tableside service of any sort, a raclette machine wheeled around a dining room feels too mechanical to me. But there’s a reason, after all, that the Melting Pot has 97 locations and counting, including more than a dozen in its native Florida. No, gulf breezes aren’t obvious fondue backdrop. But to me, that’s just testament to its primal appeal.
That said, it requires a true northern winter to properly enjoy these dishes in context — in snow-covered mountains if you can swing it, but a corner of 10th Avenue, lined with gritty slush, will do just fine.
After all, fondue is the essence of offering charm and hospitality without an implicit pressure to impress. That balance is precisely what we’ve needed from restaurants this past year — and what we’ll wish for more of as normal begins to appear, far on the horizon.